Reframing the Debate around Workers’ Compensation

Today, April 28th, 2011, is Workers Memorial Day, a day to remember and commemorate workers who have been killed, disabled, injured or made ill by their work.  The number of people in the U.S. injured or made ill by their working environment may be as high as 12.3 million workers annually.  It is estimated that more than 54,000 workers die annually from work-related injuries or illness.  In light of these sobering statistics, Workers Memorial Day reminds us of the urgent need to re-evaluate systems like workers’ compensation that are functioning poorly on multiple levels.

Workers’ Compensation, the nation’s oldest social insurance program, is largely failing to meet the needs of millions of injured and ill workers.  Injured or ill workers face inordinate delays in processing their workers’ compensation claims.  They confront harassment and discrimination from employers and the insurance industry.  They struggle to pay their medical bills, encounter pervasive social stigmatization, and are often forced into poverty.

There is a need for reform of the workers’ compensation system from the perspective of the injured or ill worker.  This year, which is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of workers’ compensation, has seen states across the country, including Maine, North Carolina, Illinois, Montana, Ohio and Washington, considering legislative reforms to workers’ compensation. This reform agenda, however,  has not been motivated by a realization that workers’ compensation is failing our injured or ill workers. Instead, the current discourse and legislative activity are primarily driven by considerations of cost containment. Many of the proposed reforms will hurt the interests of injured and ill workers.

Workers’ compensation systems are incredibly complex and thus it is difficult to understand the implications of current reform efforts. Yet it is critically important to do so and to organize against anti-worker reforms. As Harry Payne wrote recently, It is dangerously easy to accept procedural access and evidentiary changes that will tilt the system against the injured as reform, or to dismiss them as just words in a book or just legal mumbo jumbo. You will only feel the difference when you are injured and while struggling to heal, seek answers to desperate questions. But it will be too late then.” [for full article click here].

On Workers Memorial Day, as we recall workers killed, disabled, injured or made ill by work, there is an urgent need to organize around reframing the current discourse from one that focuses on containing costs to one that advocates for a system that effectively addresses and prioritizes injured and ill workers’ needs.  Reform efforts must address the tragic realities and grave suffering often faced by injured workers as they navigate the workers’ compensation system.  Injured and ill workers cannot be reduced to statistics.  Any proposed reform must be evaluated by how well it meets the needs of injured and ill workers and fulfills their human rights, not by how well it serves business interests.   

We stand in solidarity with injured and ill workers and support the efforts of the labor community in resisting proposed reforms which jeopardize the interests of injured and ill workers and which may result in a failure to respect, protect and fulfill their human rights.